This month I’m excited to bring you the legendary MC Serch.
Growing up in the 90s, MC Serch changed my life. Not only as part of the groundbreaking hip hop group 3rd Bass, but also as a producer/manager for Nas and OC. Serch helped give me the confidence to be different and cool, maybe even a little weird.
Serch is an essential part of the hip-hop scene both yesterday and today. I got a chance to catch up with him to learn how he’s been so masterful at creating the pop culture we’ve been loving for decades and counting.
So let’s get started!
Ben Smith: You’ve been a performer, a producer, a promoter, and marketer. You’ve been involved in every phase of creating and selling art. Why do you think you’re good at what you do?
MC Serch: From way back in the 3rd Bass days, I was born, raised, and trained to market myself. Ultimately, you have to have that skillset as an artist to connect with the audience you want to have support and build your career. I always wanted a larger platform for my music and career, so you have to be really good at marketing yourself, knowing where your audience lives, knowing where they’ve been, and knowing how to build on that.
Ben Smith: You’re famous for your hustle. There are so many legendary stories. I remember hearing about you as a young unknown trying to get Russell Simmons’ attention. Does hustle and grit mean something different to you today than way back in the day?
MC Serch: No, it’s really the same thing. I hustle hard regardless of what I do. For me, it was hard hustling early on because you want to expand your own brand. But now telling somebody else’s story makes the hustling even more challenging. And that’s ultimately really what marketing is all about: you pick a product and you convey to an audience what their story is and you try to help that story turn into reality.
One of my first jobs was doing brand integration and marketing for Mark Ecko and Ecko Brands. Mark didn’t want to be an urban designer. Ecko wanted to be Ralph Lauren and to be perceived that way. So in telling his story, we had to create that atmosphere. We couldn’t lean one way or another; we had to go as popular and big as we could on a limited budget. I think we did a good job. Every brand has a story and then you try to connect those dots.
Ben Smith: If you were trying to break through today as a content creator, is there a certain way you would approach it or think about it?
MC Serch: It all comes back to doing your best job to tell a story and convey that story through any way possible. The most vital thing is to have a very clear story and to believe that story. A friend of mine tried to compete against YouTube with his own new platform a couple of years back. His story wasn’t as clear as YouTube’s, so it didn’t succeed. You have to believe the story, you have to make other people believe that story, and if I were putting out an artist today, I would mostly focus on the story through his or her music.
Ben Smith: Was the story clear when you produced Nas and OC? (note: Nas’ Illmatic album is widely considered to be the best hiphop album of all time)
MC Serch: Yeah. The story was very clear with Nas. In fact, his story was easy. Nas was very focused, very clear on what he wanted to do and be perceived, and all we had to do is to make sure the record label understood that. We converted that story to a fan base.
You have to remember Nas already had several tracks out when the Illmatic album happened. We were already telling his story (as a great storyteller). The thing that people love about Nas is that 20 years later, he still conveys the story of a young kid suffering. The dialogue hasn’t changed.
OC was a little more difficult. We had to spend a lot of time and effort into making his music work. We didn’t have the tools that Nas did to convert and tell O’s story. I had to do a lot of things that were very street-oriented and get my hands dirty. So I did. We did a wheatpaste guerilla campaign, and got the biggest graffiti artists (Cost and Revs) in New York to put up wheatpaste posters on the back of every walk/don’t walk sign in New York. Just so we could have some recognition, it was literally these wheatpaste posters that was like, “Who’s OC? Call Cost and Revs.” And we set up a 718 number and we were getting thousands of calls a day.
Ben Smith: Insane! What sticks with me is how much The Source was such a gatekeeper for hip-hop music in the late 80s and 90s. Are there gatekeepers like that today?
MC Serch: You know, I have never told this story but the “Word…Life” album was supposed to get 5 Mics from The Source in 1994. Someone at the magazine leaked to me that it was going to get 5 Mics. I went to John Shecter and David Mays about a month before the issue came out. I said, “I just want to say, I’m totally amazed that you’re going to give OC 5-Mics.” They were like, “What are you talking about? We never said we were going to give him 5-Mics.” I said, “What do you mean?” Angrily they asked me who had squealed. And of course, I wouldn’t say who told me. So they wound up giving OC’s album 3 and a half mics. Later, they changed the rating in the hundredth issue of The Source.
Ben Smith: How does Spotify and streaming sites play into all of this storytelling today?
MC Serch: A lot of young people I talk to, even through focus groups, don’t listen to the radio anymore. To them, radio is ancient. Kids listen to streaming sites. Yet, if you want to sell records, you have to be on radio. It’s an interesting dichotomy in a lot of ways. I don’t think Spotify helps you sell more records. I think that it’s a great platform for people to hear new music and learn about how new music blends and sounds with different artists but I don’t see it as a selling tool.
Ben Smith: What’s the latest music project or artist that gave you goosebumps?
MC Serch: I really love Action Bronson. I love Action a lot. Not only because he’s from Queens and he’s a Jew, but also because he does a great job of converting his story and making his audience buy in. One of my favorite YouTube videos is Action at a show in Toronto. Action Bronson’s not a little guy, I think he weighs 400 pounds. He literally was bodysurfing his audience, they moved him all the way from the back of the stage to the front, and he fell flat on his ass and kept rapping. They put him back on stage. His fans literally support him (laughing). Joey Badass is another one who I just love and just respect. His story, he reminds me so much of Nas, a young Nas.
Ben Smith: What are you betting on personally in the next 12 to 24 months?
MC Serch: That’s a great question. I have a liquor brand so Nuvo would probably be one of them. We had great success from 2008 to 2011 and then got caught up in a distribution issue. We just got the brand back so I’m really looking forward to relaunching that. I’m also betting on Serchlite Publishing, with my artists (Boldy James and Ashley Rose).
Ben Smith: Are you reading anything cool right now?
MC Serch: I pretty much read the same things over and over again: Ad Age, Mobile Marketer, and Hollywood Reporter. For books, it’s Ethics 101 by John C. Maxwell.
I love that book. It’s short, maybe a hundred page book. It talks about how there is no such thing as business ethics and regular ethics, there’s just ethics. As my wife likes to say, how you do anything is how you do everything. So to me that always resonates with me. If you are shady in business, then your personal life is going to also be shady. If you’re honest in business, then you’re going to have a very honest and open relationship, and flourish. I read the book pretty regularly.
As a reminder, the purpose of QTime is to learn how talented people in our industry and beyond are great at what they do. No one ever asks the really unique, fascinating people in our space these types of questions. So I decided to find these people and share super short profiles. They are meant to be a small, happy part of your day.
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